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    Monday, March 30, 2009

    Beijing: The man in the bathtub is Lai Changxing. He's reading a newspaper that says “Canada Real Estate News” and “Job Service Centre.” This is how China's Southern Weekly newspaper – and many ordinary Chinese – envision life in Canada for China's most wanted man, someone accused by Beijing of heading a $10-billion smuggling empire before fleeing to Canada in 1999.

    With press like this, it's hard to believe sometimes, but there was a time – barely a decade ago – when this country's leaders referred to Canada as China's “best friend in the world.”

    That statement, made by then-Premier Zhu Rongji during one of those ballyhooed “Team Canada” business promotion trips of the Jean Chrétien era, was perhaps an overstatement made by a very polite host, but there was a bit of substance to it at the time. Canadian-Chinese friendship dates back to the fabled Norman Bethune's battlefield medical work during the Sino-Japanese war and has accelerated since 1970 when Canada recognized the People's Republic, two years before Richard Nixon dared travel to China. The Globe and Mail even played a role, opening the first Western newspaper office here in 1959, back when it was still called Peking. Most importantly, there are 1.4 million Canadians of Chinese descent.

    The Chrétien era was arguably the warmest stretch to date, in part because Canada's 20th prime minister was personal friends with former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. In 2005, someone named Paul Martin took it a step further by signing a “strategic partnership” agreement with visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao and promising to double trade within 10 years.

    It took less than four years for all that warmth to almost completely disappear. The Stephen Harper era has been catastrophic in terms of Ottawa-Beijing ties, to the point that Canada has become almost irrelevant here. (Charles Burton, who once served as a Canadian diplomat in China, wrote a devastating critique of what's wrong that's well worth a read. Or check out Colin Freeze's report that appeared in The Globe and Mail.)

    In a sentence that summarized much of what Mr. Burton laid out over 25 pages, the Canada-China Business council recently warned that “Canada, despite its historic ties to China, is not seizing all of the opportunities China affords to investors and businesses.”

    The two biggest irritants were Canada's decision to award honourary citizenship to the Dalai Lama (which was a good idea) and Mr. Harper's decision to skip last year's Summer Olympics in Beijing (which wasn't).

    When asked why he takes stands that fly in the face of Canada's business interests in the world's largest market, Mr. Harper claimed that he doesn't want to sacrifice “important Canadian values” to the “almighty dollar.” Fine. And if Mr. Harper was going around the world defending human rights anywhere they were in danger, his hard-line China policy might make sense. But given his government's unquestioning support of Israel during its recent assault on the Gaza Strip (to pick one example that I have some familiarity with), it's clear that he's not going to win a Nobel Peace Prize any time soon.

    The problem Mr. Harper and his coterie have is they see the world as divided up into “good” countries (like the United States, Taiwan and Israel) and “bad ones” including China and much of the Muslim world. We take tough stands about Tiananmen Square and Tibet, but don't bat an eyelash at Guantanamo Bay or Gaza. If we had a consistent, moral foreign policy based on “Canadian principles,” the tough stand vis-à-vis Beijing would make sense. But we don't, and it doesn't.

    The fact is that only the pro-Israel lobby spends more time and money on lobbying Canadian parliamentarians than pro-Taiwan groups. (Taiwan was the top destination for freebie trips by MPs in 2007, and second to Israel last year), and so here we are. And Canada's relationship with the world's next superpower is in tatters.

    The truth is that we're in serious danger becoming a “bad” country in China's eyes as well. Our Prime Minister boycotted their coming-out party last summer, when even George W. Bush and Nicholas Sarkozy found ways to attend either the opening or closing ceremonies of the Olympics. We grant refuge to their most wanted man (albeit because the aforementioned Mr. Zhu repeatedly declared that Mr. Lai deserved to be executed, which is pretty much a death sentence in a country where courts usually do as their told). And we harangue them about domestic issues from across the ocean, rather than in quiet face-to-face talks where Mr. Harper speaking his mind might actually have some impact.

    The good news is that there are some inside the Canadian government that get it. We're in the process of opening six new trade missions in China, which should finally give us a diplomatic and commercial presence here worthy of the world's third-biggest – and fastest-growing – economy. And, for better or for worse, Trade Minister Stockwell Day is planning a visit here next month.

    That's all well and good. But the word I'm getting from various sources is that the “face”-conscious Chinese leadership is going to hold a grudge until Mr. Harper repents and makes a full-on official visit to Beijing. Mr. Harper has suggested that such a trip is on the horizon.

    I hate to agree with the Toronto Star, but for the sake of Canada's interests, and reputation, in China, the sooner he gets here, the better.

    The case of the Impeccable underwear

    Beijing: It was one of the most bizarre new stories in recent weeks, a quasi-clash between the American and Chinese navies in the South China Sea.

    The incident, according to the various accounts, ranged at times between the very dangerous and the farcical, with five Chinese boats coming so close to the USNS Impeccable – waving Chinese flags and demanding that the American ship leave the area – that the Impeccable resorted to using fire hoses to force their pursuers back. Undaunted, the Chinese sailors stripped to their underwear and kept up their dangerous game of chicken.

    American officials have condemned the Chinese actions and portrayed the incident as an example of growing Chinese aggressiveness, and many news organizations used the story as an opportunity to discuss China's plans to eventually build its first aircraft carrier.

    But looking at a map of where the incident occurred (BBC has a nice one), I find myself wondering how the U.S. navy would respond to a Chinese spy ship floating so close to its territorial waters. (The Impeccable is an unarmed surveillance craft that specializes in tracking submarines. As noted on the Danwei website, the Impeccable also looks “like something in which a James Bond villain would plan world domination.”)

    The South China Sea is a mess of duelling claims, with China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam all declaring sovereignty over parts of it. It's also one of the most strategically important bodies of water anywhere, with some 10 million barrels of oil passing through every day aboard tankers. Underneath lies even greater treasure – somewhere 7.7 billion barrels and 28 billion barrels of crude oil. Hence the competing claims and the U.S. navy's interest in patrolling the region.

    The area that the Impeccable was operating in was actually just outside of China's territorial waters, but within what is known under international law as its exclusive economic zone. So the American ship had a right to be there, though the law (to me) seems vaguer on whether foreign nations can park active military vessels in another country's economic zone.

    Most Chinese are cheering on their navy's new willingness to give even the shirts off their backs for their country. “Let's send some ships to the American exclusive economic zone a few times to see the reaction of the U.S.,” a Shandong resident posted on the popular web portal. “We must control the deteriorating situation in the South China Sea by force,” chimed in blogger Wangfengchuizhou.

    This may not go away soon. While Obama and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi met last week in Washington to defuse tension over the Impeccable incident, the brouhaha escalated again shortly thereafter, when the Filipino parliament passed a law claiming sovereignty over parts of the Spratly Island chain that are also claimed by China. China responded by announcing it was sending its biggest and fastest patrol boat to the area, while the Impeccable is still floating around, now accompanied by a destroyer.

    Friday, March 20, 2009

    Random notes

    * I spent last week in Tokyo, but where I really wanted to be was Osaka, where they were dredging up old statues of Colonel Sanders. Apparently, this means the Hanshin Tigers have a chance at baseball glory this year. They haven't won the national championship since elated fans tossed the Colonel and his secret recipe into the Dotonburi River in 1985, following the Tigers' last title win. Call it the Extra Crispy Curse.

    * While the U.S. and China were playing strip tag in the South China Sea, Japan was sending off two of its own destroyers to join the international anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia. China has already done the same, but Japan's deployment is yet another stretch of its famously pacifist post-World War Two constitution. (On a related note, I dropped by Canada's own pirate hunters last fall. You can still read the article here.)

    * Is there a ban on importing cheese into China? James Fallows of The Atlantic investigates over at his superb blog.

    * I was saddened, but not surprised, to see that He Weifang, an outspoken law professor at Peking University, has been reassigned to the Western province of Xinjiang, an effective demotion that also takes Prof. He out of the media spotlight in Beijing. Prof. He knew that he was courting trouble when he signed Charter 08, a document that calls for democratic reform in China. When I last contacted Prof. He, he agreed to an interview, and then backed away a few days later. He explained that he was “reluctant to talk about the Charter at this moment.”

    * Check out Stephanie Nolen's new blog, Subcontinental, among her latest writings from, er, the subcontinent, is a post from the Tibetan capital in exile, Dharamsala.

    Tuesday, March 3, 2009

    Free Liam Gallagher!

    Beijing: Sigh.

    So the powers-that-be here have decided that British rock band Oasis can't play their first-ever gigs in mainland China because Liam Gallagher (the Gallagher brother with the nicer voice and even less of a grasp on things like politics than his sibling) played at a “Free Tibet” concert on Randalls Island in New York in 1997.

    That's the reason being given by the band, anyway. Oasis were scheduled to play a pair of shows in Shanghai and Beijing in early April and said in a statement that they were “bewildered” by the decision, which came just three weeks after the shows were announced.

    “According to the show's promoters, officials within the Chinese Ministry of Culture only recently discovered that Noel Gallagher appeared at a Free Tibet Benefit Concert on Randall's Island in New York in 1997, and have now deemed that the band are consequently unsuitable to perform to their fans in the Chinese Republic … during its 60th anniversary year,” the statement reads.

    Leaving aside the question of just exactly what or where the “Chinese Republic” is, the government-ordered cancellation is bad news for Chinese music fans, even those who aren't particularly keen on “Wonderwall” and everything that followed.

    Here's an incomplete list of some of other musicians who played that day at Randalls Island: U2, R.E.M., Eddie Vedder, the Beastie Boys, Alanis Morissette, the Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, a Tribe Called Quest and Ben Harper. So the ban on Oasis might mean no shows by Bono, Pearl Jam or Alanis in the Middle Kingdom either, although Sonic Youth did play Beijing last year without any problems.

    The Chinese government is hypersensitive regarding foreign artists performing here, particularly since last March, when Bjork – another singer who was on the stage that day in 1997 – finished a concert in Shanghai with her song “Declare Independence” and shouted “Tibet! Tibet! Raise your flag!” over the final bars. There was some chatter among Chinese music fans about what the notoriously unpredictable Gallagher brothers might do on stage.

    (It's not just the Tibet issue that gets the censors back in their 1970s frame of mind. All major foreign acts need to submit a setlist to the authorities before performing; the Rolling Stones were famously made to drop several songs with “suggestive” lyrics before they were allowed to make their 2006 debut in China. “Brown Sugar,” “Honky Tonk Woman” or “Beast of Burden” all got excised for fear of what hearing such songs live might do to the locals.)

    In my books, if the Chinese authorities were going to ban Oasis for a perceived offence to the people of China, they should have targeted the other Gallagher, Noel (the one with the unibrow who writes most of the better tunes), who made a far bigger error when he referred to Shanghai – maybe you've heard of it, population 18.9 million – as “the middle of nowhere” in an interview with That's Shanghai magazine.

    The good news is that an April 7 Oasis show in Hong Kong is apparently still going ahead. “One country, two systems,” the formula under which Hong Kong was absorbed back into China in 1997, apparently means one concert for 1.3 billion people.

    Monday, March 2, 2009

    Questions for Grandpa Wen

    Beijing: He cooks for the poor, he dodges shoes, and now Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao can claim to be the first Chinese premier to ever chat with the proletariat over the Internet.

    The widely popular premier spent two hours online Saturday afternoon answering a selection of questions from among 90,000 that were sent in via the websites of the central government and the state-run Xinhua news agency. Wen admitted he was nervous to be taking questions online for the first time, but said he would follow his mother's advice and “be honest and use (his) heart to talk.”

    Over the course of the lengthy exchange, the 66-year-old warned netizens that the global economic crisis had not yet hit the bottom, and sympathized with the plight of China's 20 million-plus jobless migrant labourers. Wen also acknowledged that China needed to make a “major move” against official corruption, and explained a planned overhaul to the country's health care system that aims to provide universal health care to all 1.3 billion Chinese citizens by 2011.

    He also answered a more light-hearted question about his reputation as a cook (earned after he cooked a New Year's meal of sautéed pork and peppers for earthquake survivors in Sichuan province), and briefly tackled last month's incident during which he had a shoe thrown his way by a protestor during a speech he gave at Cambridge University.

    “I acted very calmly. What I thought first was the national dignity, people's dignity and to maintain the friendship between China and Britain,” he said, explaining his stony response to the flying footwear. “Even if something dangerous was hurled at me, I will not move at all”

    (You can read Xinhua's account of Wen's entire chat here.)

    The online appearance comes just days before Wen is to deliver a report to the National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp parliament, and highlighted the growing power of netizens in China, which now is the world's largest online community, with more than 300 million people now connected to the World Wide Web. Though many websites – particularly those related to sensitive topics such as the so-called “three Ts” (Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square) – are routinely censored here, the Internet has nonetheless become a powerful force for change, with netizens in one recent case forcing an investigation into the suspicious death of a prisoner in police custody in Yunnan province. Online public opinion polls have also helped push official corruption, an issue the country's leadership would likely prefer to avoid discussing, to the top of the agenda ahead of this week's annual meeting of the NPC.

    “I always think that people has the right to know what the government is thinking and doing, and voice their criticism of government policy,” Wen said during the online question-and-answer session, adding that he spends half an hour to an hour online every day.

    Wen's earthy style has made him an extremely rare phenomenon in Chinese politics – someone who rose up through the thickly bureaucratic ranks of the Communist Party who can actually claim genuine popularity. When I was in Sichuan last week talking to survivors of last year's catastrophic earthquake, the people I met expressed genuine affection for the man who played a front-line role in the relief efforts last spring and has made a total of seven trips to the region since the May 12 disaster. There was a noticeable difference in how people referred to Wen, and how they spoke of Chinese President Hu Jintao (who has also visited the earthquake zone, and did a web chat of his own last year). “Grandpa Wen,” as many Chinese call him, was someone they felt they knew. Hu was someone they had seen once.

    Wen has long walked a very careful line between populism and his position in the Party. One question that wasn't asked in the online discussion – and one that would have been extremely timely given the looming 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre – is what Wen was doing in the photograph above. That's him, just to the right of Zhao Ziyang, then the general-secretary of the Communist Party, as Zhao addresses the students on Tiananmen Square in May 1989, days before the protests were forcefully quashed. Zhao, who was sympathetic to the students' calls for reform, was purged after the crackdown and placed under house arrest until his death in 2005. Wen somehow survived and kept rising through the official ranks.

    Given that Wen's webchat was conducted via official websites, it's unsurprising that no one asked him about the events of May and June 1989 (or at least that no such questions were allowed through).

    But since Wen told his virtual questioners that he spends time every day surfing the web, I'll pose my own questions here, in case his clicking ever takes him over to Points East.

    Dear Mr. Premier,

    - What was going through your mind that day as you accompanied Zhao Ziyang to address the students?

    - What do you think, 20 years later, of the Tiananmen Mothers call for the Chinese government to “break the taboo” around Tiananmen and finally name all those killed and to punish those responsible?

    - How will you mark the 20th anniversary on June 4th of this year?

    Mr. Wen, I respectfully welcome you to leave your responses in the comments section below. Or e-mail me, if that's more your style.

    Take your mother's advice about this. As you said yourself, the people - and I mean those in China, not necessarily readers here - have the right to know what their government is thinking and doing.

    The Rolex People's Liberation Monument

    Chongqing, Feb. 19, 2009: This heaving city in southwestern China is a place of many contrasts. It is at once a city that is almost unheard of outside eastern Asia, and by some measures the world's largest metropolis (if you include the admittedly expansive municipal area, some 80,000 square kilometres, a staggering 32 million people live here). And while it's hardly news anymore that modern China is a place of massive disparity between rich and poor, those two worlds don't often rub shoulders in Beijing, which six months after the spectacle of the Summer Olympics still has on its best clothes for the outside world. The poverty that afflicts so many of this country's 1.3 billion people is hidden away nicely from the hordes of foreigners that troop through the capital city.

    In Chongqing, meanwhile, gleaming towers crammed full of high-end stores and restaurants stand directly beside squalid apartment blocks and long-uncollected garbage. Young professionals in stylish Western clothes share the sidewalks with husky bang-bang men who carry other people's goods up the steep slopes of this mountainous port city on bamboo poles slung over their shoulders.

    Chongqing was also the city that served as the capital of China (and the headquarters of Korea's government-in-exile) during the brutal Japanese occupation of Beijing and the Pacific coast during the Second World War. It was here that Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-Shek met after Japans surrender to the Allies for 42 days of peace talks that quickly dissolved back into civil war between Mao's Communists and Chiang's Kuomintang.

    In the centre of this chaotic city stands the eight-sided Peoples Liberation Monument. Originally made of wood, it was first erected to commemorate the death of Sun Yatsen, the leader of the 1911 revolt that brought down the Qing Dynasty. In 1947, it was rededicated by the Kuomintang government to mark the victory over Japan. Three years later the new Communist regime gave the tower its current name in celebration of the first anniversary of the People's Republic of China.

    In other words, 27.5-metre high tower — now a concrete pillar decorated with gold writing — has a habit of getting a new name and a makeover each time there's a change of power in China.

    Some revolutions are quieter than others, however. A few years ago - the locals I spoke to said they couldn't recall precisely when - four ornate gold clocks were added to the top of the People's Liberation Monument, each bearing a very prominent "Rolex" label. More than one visitor has dubbed the remodelled monument the Rolex Tower. It still stands on Chongqing's central square, surrounded by a Starbucks, a McDonalds and a KFC.

    As one blogger from the Muslim region of Xinjiang noted after their own visit to the People's Liberation Monument "they're SO BAD at communism in China."

    Not a shot was fired, but the only thing China's latest revolution lacks is a name.

    Liar, liar, underpants on fire

    Beijing, Feb. 11, 2009: It was, quite literally, an unmissable event. A giant inferno that engulfed a 30-storey building in east Beijing, drawing a crowd of hundreds of onlookers.

    Even those Beijingers who didn't see the fire itself on Monday night were affected by it the next morning as the firefighting operation shut down a major highway – the capital's Third Ring Road – for much of the day, causing traffic chaos throughout the city. The fire also contributed to Tuesday being one of the worst air-quality days in Beijing in recent months.

    The blaze destroyed the nearly finished Mandarin Oriental hotel, which had been due to open this spring but is now an empty blackened tower. One firefighter died from smoke inhalation and seven others are in intensive care.

    Making the fire even more obvious was its location, inside the complex that contains the iconic new headquarters of Central China Television, or CCTV. Dubbed the dakucha (the big underpants), by locals, the futuristic CCTV headquarters is one of the most striking new buildings on the Beijing skyline. In fact, CCTV owned the adjacent Mandarin Oriental building that was destroyed in the fire, and hosted the fireworks party that was found responsible for starting the blaze.

    And yet, the news staff at the state-run CCTV were apparently the only people in Beijing who didn't notice the tower of flames directly in front of them. That night's newscast began not with live footage of the fire inside their complex, but with news of the fatal bush fires in faraway Australia.

    As Han Han, one of China's best-read bloggers, sarcastically noted: “If CCTV's premium evening news program started airing at that time, the cameramen could move their lens toward the window after news anchors introduced what was happening with the fire — they would get the images of the fire and produce the first unedited news story in CCTV's history.”

    In comments that were themselves censored before being reposted by other Chinese bloggers as well as websites outside China, Han Han compared the Mandarin Oriental to “the thing underneath the big underpants” and said that by burning it, CCTV had committed a symbolic act.

    “Such self-castration just perfectly fits the image of CCTV being the world's number one eunuch media,” he wrote. “For sure, the present CCTV does not deserve to have one.”

    Han Han is not alone in his disdain. Last month, a group of 22 prominent Chinese intellectuals called for a boycott of CCTV, saying the network churned out only “low-grade propaganda.”

    (For a taste of why many Chinese people might be fed up with CCTV, check out this YouTube clip of how the network covered Barrack Obama's inaugural address. The live feed is muted and the presenter awkwardly cuts in just as Obama mentions that “earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.”)

    CCTV eventually acknowledged that it was responsible for the fire, and that it didn't have the required permit to use fireworks that the deputy chief of Beijing's fire control bureau said were identical to those used during the opening ceremonies of last summer's Olympic Games.

    It has yet to apologize for its shoddy coverage of an event that couldn't have been any easier to report.

    Two thrown shoes, one "despicable act"

    Beijing, Feb. 4, 2009: After trying for 24 hours to pretend that nothing happened, the Chinese government is now declaring its belated outrage over an incident that saw a protester throw a shoe at Premier Wen Jiabao during his speech at Cambridge University.

    The incident occurred Monday as Mr. Wen was giving a speech entitled “See China in the light of her development” to a crowd of some 500 of the university's students and staff. As Mr. Wen was speaking, he was interrupted by an audience member who blew on a whistle and yelled that it was a scandal that Mr. Wen had been invited to speak at Cambridge. “How can the university prostitute itself with this dictator?” the unnamed protester shouted as others in the crowd yelled for him to stop.

    He capped off his diatribe Iraqi-style, tugging off his shoe and hurling it towards the podium, where it landed about a metre away from the Chinese premier. Mr. Wen briefly paused to size up the situation and to examine the grey sneaker that now lay to his right.

    Then, after the protester was hustled out of the room by British police to face charges of disturbing the public order, he calmly resumed his speech. (You can watch a video of the incident here. The link may not work if you're inside China.)

    At first, Beijing tried to act as though nothing had happened. The live broadcast of Mr. Wen's speech on state television was halted immediately after the incident, and no mention of the footwear-hurling was made in yesterday's newspapers.

    Today, however, the government changed tact and went on the offensive, labeling the incident to be “despicable behaviour.”

    “The Chinese side has expressed its strong feelings against the occurrence of the incident,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in a statement, part of which appeared on the front page of today's China Daily.

    The Chinese blogosphere also erupted. A clip of the incident that was eventually posted on the popular web portal drew more than 8,000 responses, most of which condemned the protester and praised Mr. Wen for his restrained response. Even my Chinese teacher was upset. “Did you see what happened to Premier Wen Jiabao? This is very disappointing,” she told me between lessons on proper sentence structure. “Everybody wants to know who would do this.”

    One thing that detracted from China's cries of insult: the same Foreign Ministry that complained of despicable behavior had seen fit to make light of a similar episode last month in Baghdad when Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi tossed his size-10s at former U.S. President George W. Bush.

    When asked about the Bush incident at a press conference in Beijing soon after that incident, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao earned a few chuckles with his response.

    “Next time I should watch out for not only [those] who are raising their hands, but also [those] who are untying their shoelaces,” he said.

    Wise advice for Mr. Wen and all world leaders these days. But it appears the Chinese government found such things funnier when the shoe was on the other foot.

    The day the music died in Macau

    Macau, Jan. 30, 2009: When times were better in this former Portuguese colony, hordes of tourists from mainland China came not only to gamble, but to shop and spend and even experience a little bit of Italy.

    The Venetian Macau, which opened its doors in August, 2007, boasts of being the world's largest casino. But it's not the 340 slot machines and 800 gaming tables that grab your attention. It's the spectacle that surrounds them.

    Between trips to the baccarat and blackjack tables, you can stroll out into the miniature "Venice" that American billionaire Sheldon Adelson built in this corner of southeast China.

    Inside the Venetian are addresses like Marco Polo Street, St. Mark's Square and the Grand Canal. The latter is one of three canals that run through the mall, giving gamblers and their families the opportunity to take rides on tradition Venetian rowboats that come equipped with gondoliers sporting the same striped shirts, wide-brimmed hats and red waist sashes that they do in the Italian version. The big-voiced gondoliers serenade their customers with English and Italian songs as they navigate along the shallow waterways, passing by high-end clothing stores whose facades have been designed to look like Venetian houses, complete with tiny overhanging balconies.

    The only thing missing from this Venice is a decent pizza joint.

    (It's not even the most bizarre casino idea in town. The Greek Mythology Casino has a large statue of Zeus in the lobby but slipped up on a few other historical details. The entrance is guarded by oversized Roman centurions.)

    But even the painted blue skies on the ceiling over the Grand Canal can't distract from the reality that this Venice, or at least part of it, is sinking.

    As the global economic crisis sweeps through Asia, fewer and fewer mainland Chinese -- who account for the vast majority of all visitors to Macau -- come to gamble.

    Though the Venetian is still the busiest place in town, it has proven to be far from immune to the effects. Many shops along the Grand Canal this week were advertising going-out-of-business sales.

    The line-ups for the gondola rides have shrunk too, and last month half the gondoliers got the same bad news so many people around the world have received since the economic crisis began last year: they were out of a job.

    The Ox's thunderous, and occasionally terrifying, arrival

    Beijing, Jan. 30, 2009: Bang. Bang. Bangbangbangbang.

    It's Day 5 of the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Ox, and the celebrations continue. All day and every night, the Chinese are still celebrating, setting off enough ordnance to make most armies blush -– and send to Odessa the Travelling Cat scrambling for furniture to hide under.

    As someone who spent the last four years living in the Middle East, I have to admit that the occasionally spectacular fireworks have made me jump more than once too. The explosives may be intended to scare away evil spirits and bring in good luck, but the first days of the Year of the Ox have made Beijing sound a little too much like Baghdad or Beirut. An unbroken night's sleep is out of the question.

    On Sunday night, on the eve of the Chinese New Year, a firework sailed into a café near Beijing's Houhai Lake that my wife and I had been sitting in not an hour before. The café was set ablaze, one of 75 fires in the city that night that were caused by the celebrations.

    To prevent such kinds of incidents, fireworks were actually banned inside Beijing and most urban areas of China from 1993 until 2005. But while the government frequently said the restriction reduced injuries and property loss, the ban was wildly unpopular -- and largely ignored. For the past three years, the government has bent to reality and lifted the ban for the Spring Festival period.

    This year, the government is not only allowing the show to go on, it's helping to make sure no one in this city of 17.5 million (and that's a low-end estimate) runs out of explosives until they're fully done celebrating the Ox's arrival. The Beijing Municipal Office of Fireworks said that a stockpile of half a million boxes of fireworks -- some of them miniature versions of the ones used during the opening of the 2008 Olympic Games -- was available for the 15-day period between the Lunar New Year and the Lantern Festival on Feb. 9. The value of the fireworks that will go up in smoke over that time has been estimated at more than $15-million.

    In many ways, it's an astonishing decision by a government that otherwise exerts so much control over people's lives. Want to buy a copy of Ma Jian's latest book Beijing Coma or surf the website of Amnesty International? The government has banned the former from Chinese bookstores and blocks access to the latter.

    Want to whistle a firework a few metres above your neighbour's head in the middle of the afternoon? Go ahead. There's no better way to say happy New Year. I even saw policemen surreptitiously set off a few rounds when they thought no one was watching them. According to the Xinhua news agency, 46 people were injured on the first night of the celebrations. The latter number, though, was portrayed as good news since it was barely half the number who were hurt during the celebrations 12 months ago to welcome the first day of the Year of the Rat.

    So what is a recently arrived Canadian -- brought up to think that fireworks displays are something that only the National Capital Commission can properly handle -- to do amid all this unhinged revelry? How does one respond after nearly being burned to a crisp in a coffee shop?

    The only thing I could think of to do was join in. Later that same night, we headed down to the public square that stretches between Beijing's historic Drum and Bell towers with a plastic bag full of explosives that you'd need a license to buy in Ontario. With hundreds of other revelers, we welcomed the Ox in the noisiest, most reckless way we could.

    Call it self-defence.